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We Jews invented wine


We celebrated Passover on Saturday at Maxine’s, where she does her version of the seder every year. It’s nowhere near as long or elaborate as the seders my Great Aunt Yetta and her husband, Uncle Sam, used to hold in their Brooklyn apartment. There, Sam would preside over the full tilt seder — so numbingly long, we kids were permitted to take a nap under the table. I can still see Sam, draped in his long, fringed prayer shawl, his bald, pink head topped by a yarmulkah. By the time Sam and Yetta’s generation passed, the task of the seder fell to my parent’s generation. Usually that meant going to Aunt Ruth’s and Uncle Teddy’s house, in the New Jersey suburbs. I don’t remember much about those seders, which probably means we didn’t take them too seriously. What I do remember is a standing joke: One of the men would say, “Let us say grace,” the rest of the men would shout out, “Grace!”, and the women served the food.

Maxine’s seder, which we’ve had every year for a long time, strikes a tone right down the middle. It’s nowhere near as long as Sam’s, but it’s serious enough to include all the relevant parts of this highly symbolic ceremony. For me, one of the most meaningful, interesting parts is when the ten plagues are read, or I should say solemnly intoned, by someone at the table, starting with the plague of blood and ending with the slaying of the Egyptians’ firstborn. With each proclamation, each seder guest spills a drop of wine on his plate. (I always do mine in perfectly-spaced droplets around the rim, although there’s no prescribed way of doing it.) The wine, of course, is red. (Did they even have white wine in Old Testament days?)

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I don’t know if there are any Christian holidays or any holidays in other religions that not only encourage heavy drinking, but actually demand it, besides the Jewish Passover, or Pesach, as it’s known in Hebrew. At least four glasses of wine are specifically mandated, but nobody’s prevented from drinking more than that, and at our seders, everybody does. Wine has been an integral part of Jewish life from the beginning. When his ark landed after the great flood, about 4,700 years ago, Noah famously planted a grapevine; who knows how much earlier some Semite had discovered the miracle of fermentation. By the time of Abraham and his progeny, wine was, of course, deeply interwoven into Jewish life, albeit not always happily, which is why moderation in drinking has been central to Jews.

When we drink wine, we say the following prayer:

Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who created the fruit of the vine

which must be among the most ancient of the brachas (blessings) Jews have uttered for thousands of years (and it’s curious that they gave praise to God for creating the grape, not the wine. I think even then Jews recognized human creativity as being able to improve on the raw materials God provided). I sometimes try to imagine the sense of wonder and gratefulness my ancestors must have felt regarding wine, this miracle beverage that lifted their spirits, soothed their souls and gave them respite, when they were surrounded by enemies and lived lives of more or less unremitting toil. Whenever I worry that I drink too much (and I sometimes do worry about it), I reconnect soulfully with the hundred generations that came before me, and take comfort that I am not, after all, doing anything they didn’t do. Only puritans, living lives of fear, reject wine. Even birds will peck openings in ripe grapes, let them do a little fermenting, then come back and do the avian equivalent of par-tay. That’s why grapegrowers net their vines.

For a thousand years the traditional Passover dinner centered around chicken, probably because that’s all the poor ghetto Jews of Europe could afford. These days, most Jewish families serve lamb. Maxine always does lamb, a big, rich, perfectly roasted leg, with her signature garlic new potatoes and — given the time of year, Spring — the season’s first asparagus, green, sweet and buttery. There are all sorts of odd flavors at the Passover table, mandated by tradition: strong horseradish (symbolizing the bitterness of captivity), parsley dipped in salt water (the people’s tears), charoset (a mixture of apples, nuts, honey and cinnamon meant to symbolize the mortar used by the Jews when, as Pharoah’s slaves, they had to construct his buildings; but the honey symbolizes also the sweetness that came with the freedom of the Exodus). I like to serve a big, rich Cabernet Sauvignon with the seder meal, although I just (moments ago) heard Leslie Sbrocco on NPR, where she suggested Syrah (in her case, with the Easter lamb, but lamb is lamb). But I will fess up that, after our first ritual four glasses of red wine, I was in the mood for a white, so I grabbed a Chardonnay from the fridge, which puzzled Maxine’s husband, Keith. When he asked me why Chardonnay, I said, “Because I feel like it.” The essence of Passover — its central meaning, after all the ritual is stripped away — is FREEDOM. Slaves do only what they think they have to. A free man or woman does what he wants.

I heard, also on NPR yesterday Easter Sunday morning, a Benedictine nun tell a story about a rampaging Chinese warlord who ordered all the local villages to be emptied of their entire populations. His lieutenants reported back to him that this had been done, with one exception: an elderly penitent, who refused to leave her cloister. The warlord ordered his men to drag the old woman before him.

“Woman!” the warlord thundered. “Do you know who I am? I am he who can run you through with this sword, and not bat an eyelash!”

The woman replied, “Man! Do you not know who I am? I am she who can permit you to run me through, without batting an eyelash.”

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  1. Steve – thank you for this wonderful post. My childhood seders were just as you describe — swap in “Izzy” for “Sam” and I’m right under that dining room table napping with you! Now, my family has the exceptional good fortune to celebrate the first seder with our Rabbi’s family. While the seder is long-ish, it’s filled with music and engaging discussion that involves everyone around the table, which keeps the kids from ending up under the table! Chag Sameach! -Louise

  2. steve, warm thanks for sharing the celebration details and recounting of memories of your holiday feasting. you are a wonderful writer.

  3. Steve: Thank you for sharing your stories of these traditions around the Passover table. My husband has been begging for me to hold a Moroccan seder with the addition of chicken tagine to help get some white wine in our Passover glasses but we were assigned the vegetables for this year’s meal so maybe in 2011.

    Until a few years ago, I didn’t realize that Passover was also a holiday about asking questions – other than the four questions – to keep the conversation going between children and adults through the night. This year my 15 going on 16 year old nephew asked the question – Am I Old Enough to Finally Drink Some Wine? vs the diluted grape juice mixture that the children all have in their glasses.

    I was much relieved that his mother and father said yes – as it is my hope that he next generation will make wine an integral part of every day dining in the U.S. … am I dreaming? well, the water did part…


  4. I loved this post, Steve. We did a Seder meal at our church last Thursday (and let me tell you, it’s quite humorous to get a bunch of beer-drinking Germans to resign themselves to wine), to learn more about the traditions of Passover. I’d like to experience a real Seder meal some day (i.e. not one put on by Lutherans).

    We live in Baptist country and are fond of telling people that Noah was the first vintner. The Bible is full of great wine imagery, and I find it amazing that so many people can explain away the drinking therein. As you noted, it’s about moderation.

  5. Vis-à-vis other religions, the little matter of St. Patrick’s Day would be a little bit of a religious drinkfest – but it’s not as if we Irish need an excuse. Interestingly, sale of alcohol is still prohibited in Ireland on Good Friday except for this year if you lived in Limerick city. There was a special exemption due to a rugby fixture between fierce rivals Leinster and Munster. This exemption could open the floodgates, bringing us back to the old testament with Noah or perhaps Moses.

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